The upcoming legalization of cannabis is not only a concern for government and law. It is also an important cultural opportunity for universities to destigmatize drug use, provide drug education across campuses, and address the broken parts of campus culture.
Heather Kelly, U of T’s Senior Director of Student Success, has said that while the university plans to apply existing rules for alcohol and tobacco to cannabis, “we want [students] to know what to do if they find themselves or a friend in trouble” and “how to recognize signs that somebody may need assistance.” Educating students on safer substance use is vital, but where and how this education will take place remains unclear.
Acknowledging student drug use at U of T is long overdue. Even before legalization, 28 per cent of U of T students reported using marijuana last year. Now that it is no longer an illegal substance, it is imperative that we distinguish use from abuse.
For instance, students may turn to cannabis to self-medicate their mental health issues instead of seeking professional help. A 2017 study found that teenagers across Canada are using cannabis to self-medicate for stress and anxiety. As cannabis becomes more readily accessible, the university administration needs to educate students on how to maintain a healthy relationship with the substance.
Cannabis education requires confronting a university culture that normalizes binge-drinking and unhealthy substance use. However, university administrations should not attempt to counteract this culture with zero-tolerance policies. Instead, they should accept that their students drink and use drugs and focus on helping students stay safe.
Canadian Public Health Association Executive Director Ian Culbert said that “experimentation is a natural part of growing up” and that university administrations and student associations should therefore adopt “a very proactive approach at getting education materials out to all of the students.”
Yet it is necessary to acknowledge that not everyone has been allowed to experiment without repercussions. Although research demonstrates that the rate of cannabis use is similar across different racial groups, a 2017 Toronto Star investigation found that in Toronto, Black people with no criminal record were three times as likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white people who also have no record.
A subsequent investigation found that across Canada, Black and Indigenous peoples were disproportionately arrested for possession. Cannabis legalization may help put an end to this injustice going forward, but many argue that Canada should go further and pardon all Canadians with records of cannabis possession.
U of T assistant sociology professor and Director of Research at Cannabis Amnesty Akwasi Owusu-Bempah is among those calling on the federal government to instate a blanket pardon. Owusu-Bempah told the CBC that, because cannabis prohibition has disproportionately impacted marginalized communities, “amnesty is important to level the playing field.”
Just as amnesty should accompany cannabis legalization, an anti-racism approach is central to meaningful cannabis education. Historically, governments have justified the criminalization of drug use through associations with racialized communities. Destigmatization is therefore not only about challenging misconceptions surrounding the actual use of drugs, but also the racial underpinnings that have long justified those misconceptions.
Furthermore, cannabis education must involve discussions of consent. U of T can use this opportunity to challenge the idea that women are to blame for sexual violence. Discussions of safe alcohol consumption often place the onus on women to protect themselves from sexual assault by refraining from consuming alcohol. A new dialogue around substance use and consent is necessary, because simply telling women not to drink or do drugs will not stop sexual violence.
As a Vice article points out, the relationship between cannabis use and sexual consent is a topic that is largely ignored. Where it is discussed, it is often oversimplified. A Psychology Today article notes that while “the combination of sex and alcohol greatly increases women’s risk of sexual assault… marijuana has never been shown to increase” this risk.
Statements like these are typical of society’s tendency to blame sexual violence on substances over perpetrators. Confronting this through consent education can help reduce sexual violence on campus and create a culture where perpetrators are actually held accountable.
Students and administration can work together to make this education a reality. The Sheffield Students’ Union in the UK provides its students with information on safer practices when using illegal drugs, providing a model for U of T or the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) to follow.
Student networks like the Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy work to empower students with information on safer drug use, and a chapter of the organization exists at U of T. The university administration could also implement an online training module on safer substance use, like the current module on sexual education and violence prevention.
The administration and the UTSU should use their platforms to provide students with information on safe practices when it comes to the use of cannabis and other drugs and training on how these substances can affect a person’s ability to consent. The university community should also acknowledge the uneven damages left by the criminalization of cannabis on students, and reflect on how to repair these damages moving forward, including supporting calls for cannabis amnesty.
Cannabis legalization marks an important cultural shift as drug use is increasingly seen as a matter of public health rather than a moral or criminal issue. However, this shift is only possible if powerful institutions, including universities, choose education over stigmatization.
Amelia Eaton is a second-year Political Science and Ethics, Society and Law student at Woodsworth College. She is The Varsity’s Student Life Columnist.